Shared as received.

The Average Age of PhD Graduates in Kenyan universities is worrying

By Maurice N. Amutabi

Many Kenyans who witnessed recent Kenyan graduations ceremonies must have been surprised by the average age of PhD graduates, because it was evident that many of them have been around for a little longer. The ceremonies were colourful and there is no doubt that the recipients of the permanent head damage (PhD) deserved their degrees, but what was evident was their advanced age, with receding hairlines and colours of grey. Honestly, the age of students graduating with PhDs in Kenyan universities is worrying, because many of them are in their 50s and 60s and something needs to be done about it. This leaves them to work for about 20 years and they reach emeritus status compared to the west where the age of PhD graduates is about 28 and they expect about 50 years service from their PhD holders, and which gives them tremendous amount of advantages.

The past graduation season showed some students using walking sticks to receive their PhDs and some could not kneel at the dais. This got me thinking, and asking myself why our PhD graduates are too old, graduating in their 50s and 60s. One of the reasons is that most of people think about PhDs when they are about to retire and want to increase their working days by seeking to get PhDs, while others started their PhDs many years ago but have been walking the “corridors of recasting” and “corridors of frustration” for a long time that they end up taking over 10 years doing their PhDs. I realised some are victims of a system that does not promote staff development and have worked as lecturers or tutorial fellows for over 20 years since they received their masters and cannot afford high fees charged in PhD programmes. There are those who completed coursework and cannot continue because they cannot afford costs of field research.

I was bothered by the problem of graduating pre-Octogenarians in many Kenyan universities because I also received my PhD late, in my late 30s and was the oldest student in all my PhD courses at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA where majority of my classmates were in their 20s. Many of my professors were in their 30s and 40s and some were much younger than me. The age of Kenyan PhD graduates got me wondering whether late blooming is a Kenyan problem. I applied to begin my PhD in my 20s in 1991 in Kenya and was dismissed as being too young and “in a hurry” which really discouraged me. There were also many obstacles to getting PhD scholarships because the opportunities were given to those who were “known” by the big people on campus and the Ministry of Education at the time. I remember I applied for Commonwealth scholarship to UK and Canada but was always given India, which I was not comfortable with, until the USA government granted me a Fulbright Scholarship to study PhD after waiting for ten years.

Gerontocracy (study of aging) experts will tell you that scholars are most productive between the ages of 30 and 50, and afterwards they begin to decline and move towards their sunset years and start to write memoirs and reflections of their great past. The other issue is that after 50 the human mind begins to slow down and reflex actions begin to experience delays. The mind begins to forget, the body gets frail and easily tired and eyes begin to fail. Unfortunately, many Kenyan professors are above 50 years as well as many PhD holders which cause paralysis in the higher education sector. Students cannot get useful feedback and when they do it is often late. The other problem is that the few professors available end up in administration as directors, deans, deputy vice chancellors and vice chancellors at a relatively young age because salaries for classroom or research professors are depressingly low.

There are also age tensions, between younger and older scholars which affect graduate students. If you are below 40 and you are a doctor, you realise that in order to survive you have to be seen and not be heard otherwise you will never move beyond lecturer to senior lecturer. Scholars are therefore scared for the dictatorship of age rules. In many university senates, incoherent octogenarians dominate and reminiscence about the past a lot, about their days at Alliance and Maseno under Carey Francis, their days at the University of Nairobi and Kenyatta University “when they were still universities” and ask tough questions during PhD defences which are meant to scare students away, arguing that PhD is for the tough and not for the faint hearted, and it is not for everybody.

Students who have the courage to remain and complete their PhDs are slowed down by problems of supervision with professors and doctors giving comments at their own discretion. If a student questions the speed of receiving feedback, he is labelled ‘trouble maker’ and may never graduate because the professors have formed cartels where they agree on who to graduate and whom to fail. The PhD students are therefore a scared lot and move around with a lot of fear. Some of the professors delay students because of their own differences. They intentionally fail students of their rivals. When they supervise the same student, they cannot agree on many issues, thereby impeded progress of their students. Some male professors make sexual demands on their female PhD students and those who do not cooperate are denounced as ‘weak’ and ‘uncooperative’ and not good team players.

I yearn for a time when Kenyan universities will produce majority of their PhD graduates in their 20s and 30s. It is happening in the West where students who receive first class and upper second are groomed into future professors by being recruited as teaching or graduate assistants with good salaries and given tuition waiver into masters degrees and after two years of masters, they move to PhD degrees and after three years, they can graduate as Doctors. Kenyan professors need to stop looking at the amount of grey hair on the student’s head before granting PhDs. They should promote PhD holders to professorial positions, based on teaching experience, research, supervision of graduate students and publications as yard sticks to advancement, not age, ethnic, gender and other factors.

Prof. Amutabi is the Vice Chancellor of Lukenya University, Kenya and Professor of History – Amutabi@gmail.com

Published by MWALIMU Amunga Akhanyalabandu

Passionate about Advocacy on the REAWAKENING teachers in Kenya and reporting on the MULEMBE Nation. Having worked at the Kenya National Union OF TEACHERS in the advocacy department, I will be able to detail and explain about the welfare of teachers and their point of view on socio economic and political matters. Luhyia are the 2nd most populous ethnic group in Kenya. They are blessed with great land, topography, climate, resources and human Resource. We are also keen on Luhya Renaissance is about making the Mulembe People aware of their blessings, appreciating those blessings, defending them and putting them to proper use for the current and future generations.


  1. Prof. Amutabi’s article is a timely reflection that needs to be paid attention to by decision makers in Education, with a view to fixing this deplorable situation. Although I did not have the opportunity to witness the recent graduations and observe the number of senior citizens receiving their PhD’s as alluded to here, I believe the categorical age comparison of PhD recipients at home and Europe /America has been painted with one broad brush.

    I received my education (BSc, Masters and PhD in the US), the last one in 1995. Now, unless there has been a major shift, to have under 30s receive their PhDs then was very rare! The Majority were above 30 and yes there were a good number in their 40’s and above.

    For those in the industry, it is advisable to take a break and work for some time to get clarity of the best fit/calling area to pursue. You see, not all PhDs end in lecture rooms. I did that and it really helped! Granted, ended up being 39 years at the time of finishing my PhD but a good number of my graduating class were my age mates. I still advice my menteed to follow that option unless they have ready scholarship offers. For me, that strategy was an opportunity to have access to better and more generous scholarships that created lifetime career partnerships.

    Besides, for purposes of child bearing and starting a family within the prime of the biological clock, it’s a sensible thing to take a break from studies to experience the industry and start a family. In short, one can opt, and I repeat opt not to accelerate their journey towards obtaining a PhD and that’s perfectly alright. The problem as raised by the author is when myriad obstacles are introduced to force the slow progression. That is unacceptable!

    I know some of those who should be listening here and move with haste to address this problem are themselves notorious for being in the same mindset of bragging about their education, the universities they attended and going about like they are the only ones who ever stepped into a classroom or the only degree holders, sometimes even dismissing everyone else as “foolish”, openly!

    Who will rescue this situation for those who opt to pursue PhD’s and save our education system ?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s